Modern Gladiators

Source: Véra Tsaritsyn [Lady Colin Campbell], ‘A Woman’s Walks. No. CXXXVIII. Modern Gladiators’, The World, 20 October 1897 pp. 26-27

Text: In spite of all that the humanitarians may say or the Peace Society may preach, the love of fighting will endure to the end of time to give savour to life and to prevent the human race from becoming plethorically inclined to “turn the other cheek to the smiter.” Humility may be praised as a Christian virtue; but it is not of any practical use to either private individuals or nations. Therefore anything that counteracts the doctrine of the Peace Society and helps to retain and foster the fighting spirit in the Anglo-Saxon race is to be approved; and it is with satisfaction that I note the number of people who are crowding into the theatre of the Aquarium to see the cinematograph version of the great fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons, which took place last March in Carson City, Nevada.

It certainly was an admirable idea to have got up this historic encounter for the sake of the pictures to be obtained of it. It is given to comparatively few to see a real prize-fight; but these pictures put the P.R. “on tap,” as it were, for everybody. It is the real thing: the movements of the men, the surging of the crowd, the attentive ministrations of the backers and seconds, are all faithful represented; only it is so bowdlerised by the absence of colour and noise that the most super-sensitive person, male or female, can witness every details of the fight without a qualm. Evidently the fair sex appreciate such an opportunity, for there are plenty of those tilted “coster-girl’”hats adorned with ostrich feathers that would delight the heart of a “donah,” which are fashion’s decree for the moment, to be seen in the theatre. An elderly and ample lady comes in alone and occupies the next stall to us, with an air that fills us with the certainty that she knows all about the P.R. With a similar appearance of superior knowledge Mrs. Fitzsimmons must have watched the fray on the great occasion. The five-shilling “pit” (which are the lowest-priced seats for this peep-show) is soon filled up; the half-guinea stalls are not long behindhand; and the only part of the auditorium which remains partially empty is the back row of the stalls, which, for some mysterious reason, is thought to offer such exceptional advantages that the seats are priced at a guinea. The seats being exactly the same as the half-guinea abominations in clinging red velvet, and the point of view being precisely similar to that of the front row of the pit (which is only divided off by a rope), we ponder over the gullible snobbishness of the world, while a well-meaning but maddening lady bangs out “The Washington Post” out of an unwilling and suffering piano in the corner. We have nearly arrived at the point of adding our shrieks of exasperation to those of the tortured instrument when the show begins and the “Washington Post” is mercifully silenced.

We are first gratified with a little slice of statistics; the two miles of films on six reels, containing one hundred and sixty-five thousand pictures; the prize of 7000l. which went to the victor; the names of the referee, the timekeeper, and various other details, to which the audience listens with ill-concealed patience, being evidently of the opinion it would be best to “cut the cackle and come to the horses.” That consummation is at hand; the first picture is thrown upon the sheet, and, having wobbled about a little to find the centre of the canvas, settles down into an admirably distinct view of the platform, with the two champions wrapped in long ulsters, each surrounded by his backers. In the centre, below the platform, is the official timekeeper, Mr. Muldoon, who, with his back turned to us, keeps an unflinching watch on the chronometer in his hand. Beside him is Fitzsimmons’s trainer, with a face of the most brutal Irish type, who waves his white hat to the Cornishman ten seconds before the end of each round as a warning of the time he has in hand. The two combatants are pacing up and down, each at his side of the ring, with the nervous restlessness of wild animals. Presently they throw off their ulsters and appear in the simple garb of bathing drawers and shoes, to which are added the light boxing-gloves that only weigh five ounces the pair, and which, so far from being a mitigation of the blows, enable the men to hit very much harder, as they do not bark their knuckles. Both men are certainly splendid specimens of humanity. Corbett is by far the most attractive; good-looking, tall, beautifully proportioned, as light as a cat in his movements, and with a cheery smile which must have been a joy to his innumerable backers. Fitzsimmons is far more of the gorilla type than Corbett; he has the extraordinary breadth of shoulder, depth of chest, and abnormal length of arm which characterise the gorilla; and with this immense structural development of body, he is far lighter in build as regards his legs than his adversary. His face is of the regular pugilistic type, with indeterminate features that no amount of banging about could alter or make much impression upon; and his bald head makes him look a very great deal older than the boyish Corbett, though there is only the difference of four years between them. No; Fitzsimmons is certainly not as attractive as Corbett; but he awakens my warm approval and interest when he refuses to shake hands with the antagonist who sedulously defamed him and branded him as a coward before the fight came off. When one knows that each man came on to that platform with the pious intention of disabling, if not killing, his adversary in the shortest possible time, that there was bitter enmity of long standing between them which nothing but such a duel could assuage, the farce of a friendly hand-shake between them could only be regarded as sentimental “bunkum” to please the gallery; and I respect Fitzsimmons for refusing to be a party to such a thing.

Then the fight begins; and as it progresses one becomes more and more impressed by the curious silence which is so unnatural to such a scene of activity. The blows given and received lose half their significance, and the excitement of the crowd can only be guessed by the spasmodic movement of a line of spectators at the back of the stand perched like large black crows upon a rail against the sky above the sea of faces below. Corbett, active a s a cat, leads his opponent about the ring, Fitzsimmons seeming almost lethargic for the first six or seven rounds. Corbett follows his usual tactics of trying to tire out his opponent, and he lands many a blow on Fitzsimmons’ face, who takes them stoically and is evidently watching his opportunity for getting in one of those crushing pole-axe blows with which he had already killed two men, Jack Dempsey and Con Riordan, in previous fights. My ignorance of the rules of the rules of the P.R. is fairly complete, but I do no hesitate to say that the fight is very considerably spoiled by the constant “clinching” and wrestling of the two men. Boxing is one thing, wrestling is another; and these continual corps-à-corps are as great a mistake in a pugilistic encounter as they are in a fencing assault. They are worse, in fact, because in fencing the adversaries do not seek to take advantage of each other on separating from a corps-à-corps; whereas in the “break-aways” between Corbett and Fitzsimmons both men do their best to get in a blow if they possibly can. Corbett gains “first blood” in the fifth round, and unquestionably is quicker with his fists as well as more active on his legs than his opponent. In the sixth round there is so much actual wrestling that we are told that even the spectators expressed their disapproval. In this round Fitzsimmons drops on one knee under a blow, and the referee counts the fatal seconds, then of which mean victory to Corbett if Fitzsimmons is not on his legs before they run out; but it looks as if the Cornishman had made this feint to get his wind, for at the eighth second he rises as fresh as ever, though by now he is certainly somewhat the worse for wear, even with the bowdlerised rendering of the cinematograph and its aversion to details.

Between the rounds the men are petted and ministered to by their backers. Corbett is surrounded by a cloud of admirers; one rubs his legs, no doubt to keep the cramp out of his muscles; two others screen him from the sun by making a tent over his head with a blanket; others fan him, sponge his face, and “cosset” him generally, like a favourite sultana in a harem. At the word “Time!” he is always the first in the middle of the platform; but as the rounds go on the jaunty spring goes out of his step. The more Fitzsimmons gets knocked about, the more active he becomes; and the pace of the fight is certainly telling more on Corbett than on the Cornishman, in spite of the latter’s face being all dark and blurred from the punishment he is receiving. Both men are blowing hard when the thirteenth round arrives; but Corbett’s activity seems to return to him, and he fights quite beautifully. The cinematograph seems to share in the excitement of the audience, for it wobbles to such a degree that it is hardly possible to make out what the men are doing at times; and one’s head and eyes ache with the effort of watching the maddening jig of the pictures and trying to follow the details of the duel. Fortunately it steadies a little for the fourteenth round, which is also the last; for not many blows have been given and received when Fitzsimmons at last gets his opportunity, and a crushing blow over the heart sends the Californian on his knees. Even then he is a beautiful thing to see, as he crouches almost in the attitude of the Dying Gladiator, and struggles hard to rise before the fatal ten seconds have been counted. With his hand pressed over his heart he drags himself across the platform to the ropes, hoping to rise by their aid; but he reaches them just as the time of respite expires. The sound of the fated “Ten!” seems to galvanise Corbett out his agony of pain. He gets on his feet, and through the crowd of backers which have invaded the platform he rushes like a bull at Fitzsimmons, who, having amiably kicked his second out of the ring in the fulness of his victorious joy, is talking to his friends in one corner of the platform. As quick as lightning he is on his guard against Corbett’s blow; the second close round the latter and drag him away by sheer force of numbers. But Corbett is mad with natural rage and disappointment at having been half a second too late; again and again he breaks away from his captors and goes for his enemy. The crowd is by now nearly as made as he; it sways hither and thither over the platform with the two white figures and bare heads appearing every now and then in the midst, until finally Corbett is fairly overpowered, lifted off his feet, and carried off the platform. It is a splendid and dramatic end to an historic encounter; and one feels a thrill of sympathy for Corbett in losing his chance by half a second. Up to that fatal blow the battle was extraordinarily equal; and with such an amount of fighting power still in him, even after so terrible an experience, no one could claims for Fitzsimmons that he had fought Corbett “to a standstill.”

The two miles of pictures have taken an hour and a half to pass before our eyes; but though we leave the theatre with aching heads, we regret that so little that we determine to return as soon as we can, to witness again this combat of modern gladiators.

Comments: Lady Colin Campbell, born Gertrude Elizabeth Blood (1857-1911) was an Irish journalist, author and socialite. She wrote a regular column for The World entitled ‘A Woman’s Walks’, using the pseudonym Véra Tsaritsyn. The world heavyweight boxing championship between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons was held at Carson City, Nevada on 17 March 1897. The full fight was filmed by the Veriscope company using a 63mm-wide film format and was widely exhibited, the full film being 11,000 feet in length and lasting around an hour-and-a-half. It was shown at the Royal Aquarium theatre in Westminster, London from September 1897. The exhibition of the film was controversial, given the illegal or semi-illegal status of boxing in many territories. As the writer records, a notable feature of the film’s exhibition was the number of women who came to see it. Fitzsimmons had been accused of the manslaughter of boxer Con Riordan, his sparring partner, in 1894, but was acquitted. He also severely defeated Jack ‘Nonpareil’ Dempsey, but the latter died of tuberculosis in 1895 and not through a Fitzsimmons blow. ‘P.R.’ stands for ‘prize ring’.

My London Film Education

Source: Julien Allen, ‘My London Film Education’, Reverse Shot, 12 December 2014, http://reverseshot.org/features/1971/escape_london

Text: Ostensibly studying law in London from 1990 to 1992, I was in fact, despite myself, studying cinema — but strictly as a naïve autodidact. I kept up with Dilys Powell’s last pieces in the Times and followed Derek Malcolm (The Guardian) and Nigel Andrew (FT), yet my textbooks of choice weren’t those of Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris but a fat Halliwell’s Guide and Time Out listings. Arrogantly — and wrongly — I doubted I could learn from the page something I couldn’t learn better from the screen. I shunned Sight & Sound because I didn’t trust it; it felt to me like uppity English critics “playing cinema.” For my freshman and sophomore years of film education, London was a vital, liberating platform, but I spent the following two years studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, whose infrastructure was, by comparison, simply awe-inspiring. Paris was a city whose Latin Quarter theaters alone (Action Écoles, Grand Action, Action Gitanes, Champo, Épée de Bois, Reflet Medicis, Pantheon, Studio Galande) had repertory programmes which obliterated London’s entirely, replete with massive retrospectives — all Chaplin, all Welles, all Renoir, all Fellini, all Ozu talkies — relentless, heaving listings, subsidized festivals of film cropping up all year round (e.g. Arabic film, children’s film, slapstick, German expressionist, etc.) and even on one Sunday morning, twenty Tex Avery shorts in 16mm. Emboldened by the known pedigree of French film writing, I also started reading criticism properly in Paris: Trafic, Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, Les Inrockuptibles.

Paris was a homecoming of sorts because I had first succumbed to the idea of cinephilia at age sixteen during a school year in France when I had been struck with admiration at how seriously films were being taken, by comparison to England. By the time I got to college in London in 1990, eager to indulge this new obsession, cinema had become for me an antisocial, self-indulgent, and, above all, solitary pursuit. It was a secret I didn’t feel any urge to share. I got into films neither to fit in (no one I knew was interested) nor to make new friends (the idea of being part of a “film community” would have been insufferable to me then, even had there been one) nor to stand out from the crowd (being a film buff isn’t crazy to civilians, just dull). I wasn’t even particularly keen to talk to people about films, I was just interested in consuming them: greedily and without restraint. Going to the pictures whenever I wanted, without having to ask permission, was freedom. It was also an addiction to something that both felt good and — unlike most addictions — healthy. Going two or three times a day instead of going to lectures or getting drunk in the student union bar seemed not at all abnormal.

In this respect, it was my good fortune to arrive in London just in time. The eighties had bitten down hard, and the repertory scene was on a gurney, approaching the operating table. TV channels had started showing films all year round, VHS rental shops had opened in petrol stations, and more than eighty percent of theaters in Britain had shut down or converted to bingo halls during the preceding decade. I arrived in the capital during a hiatus (which was later to be filled by DVD and the multiplex). In the early nineties, London’s remaining rep cinemas were slashing prices and recycling their stock in the hope of staving off the inevitable. The market followed: an impoverished student with a bus pass, like me, could englut himself.

You can get a sense of the strangeness of early 90s filmgoing in London from one particular experience I had after a long Friday-night journey on public transport. I don’t remember (and cannot find) the name of the venue — an unprepossessing shack below a railway bridge in Acton, no trace of which now remains—but I promise you it existed. I vividly recall three things from my only trip there: first, you could buy beer in the foyer and take it into the screening; second, the image on the screen was from an old 80s LCD projector (an angry walkout-inducing observation today, a shoulder-shrugging reality then); third, I was completely alone in the theater for the entire duration of a double bill of Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. Acton, a West London district straddling the boroughs of Ealing and Hammersmith, had once housed Britain’s largest cinema, the Globe, as well as the equally impressive Dominion — opened by Gracie Fields in 1938. Add to this the Crown in Mill Hill Place, the popular King Street Odeon, and the identity-disorder-suffering Cinematograph in Horn Lane (latterly the Kinema, the Carlton and the Rex), and Acton had been a beacon of London cinephilia right up until the 1960s. In 1990 you could watch a David Lynch double bill alone, on the world’s largest television (the only cinema now in Acton is the nine-screen Vue multiplex).

Further cut-price viewing opportunities were legion. At Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, a modern glass-and-concrete arts center (which also premiered Théâtre de Complicité plays), you could see two films for two pounds (about $3.50 at the time). That’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, in comfortable seats, for the price of a slice of pizza. The double bills were always obvious and alluring: Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose; Claire’s Knee and Pauline at the Beach; Seven Samurai and Rashomon; Raging Bull and The King of Comedy; The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts; Salesman and Gimme Shelter. Occasionally they’d go out on a limb and do two films by different directors, but the main drivers for me were delivery and value, not articulate programming. For two pounds fifty (just over $4), they did us a Nosferatu with a live piano accompaniment from a young local composer. You could see six films in a day if you hadn’t anywhere else to be (I hadn’t). The prints here were almost universally shocking: scratched and faded, all dancing pubes along the bottom and entire lines of dialogue cut, or rudely interrupted. Every time you went, you were reminded how cheap it was and consequently, how lucky you were. (I am certain that this whole experience is what disqualifies me from any deep-seated interest or meaningful contribution to the 35mm vs. DCP debate: the building blocks of my cinephilia were 35mm, but maculate in the extreme, such that the quality of the image became something of an irrelevance, as the power of the great filmmakers’ storytelling burned through. My preference would be to prioritize whatever format people can ultimately most afford to watch.)

The Everyman in Hampstead was more old-school, with a turn-of-the-century room, intermissions, and a posh café. Here was the scene of at least one lost Sunday: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Once Upon a Time in the West, two films with a combined duration (IMDb confirms) just shy of 200 hours. The Phoenix in Finchley (memorable double: Odd Man Out and The Third Man) and the Rio in Dalston Kingsland (Thief and Manhunter) felt like Alamo-style strongholds in a cultural desert (i.e. North London, which to a South London–based student was only designed to house people who had chosen the well-trodden path of slowly dying of boredom). I mention all these venues first for the simple reason that—in one form or another—they survived. They remain, just as they were 20 years ago, vital repositories of revivalist and art-house cinema: affordable, energetic, devoted. As I write, Riverside Studios is about to close its doors for a major redevelopment.

Less fortunate was the notorious countercultural fleapit, the Scala in Kings Cross, a mythically grimy room with an insalubrious past (the seats could have provided a handy training aid for the Environment Agency). They programmed Pasolini, Warhol double bills, occasional erotica, and, fatally, Stanley Kubrick’s banned A Clockwork Orange one too many times. Warner Brothers’ ensuing lawsuit bankrupted the cinema, and the site now stands as a concert hall, doubling as a ballroom for corporate events — thereby catering to a clientele that would never have gone near the place in the dirty days. The Lumière in St Martins Lane (less a rep cinema than a straight art house) was probably my own favorite place to see a film, even if it was costly and, unlike the Riverside, only showed one at a time. It was a vast, antiseptically clean but actually quite gorgeous modern cinema associated with art-house VHS distributor Artificial Eye (its plush seats were even in the teal green of their logo) that programmed principally modern French cinema, and it was, perhaps most importantly, nearly empty whenever I went. As rents went through the roof it became laughably unviable and closed, to be replaced in the late 90s by a swanky, brutalist hotel.

The older, more established, and unthreatened central London bastions of art house were the grand behemoth of the Curzon Mayfair in Curzon Street (one of the first cinemas to show foreign-language films of any description in the UK), its sister in Shaftesbury Avenue (now the Curzon Soho), and the Renoir (now the Curzon Renoir … you can see a pattern emerging) in the old literary quarter of Bloomsbury, north of Russell Square. These guys knew their onions, seemed somehow connected to continental cinephilia, and certainly programmed more Far Eastern cinema than anywhere else (even if that meant strictly Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, no Hou, Yang, or Imamura). The Renoir memorably showed Kieslowski’s Decalogue over five consecutive days. I visited these cinemas infrequently as they were extremely pricey, with Soho charging as much as £8 (around $14) for a ticket for a new release (no student concessions). The Curzon Group — a corporate success story — has now cornered the market in London art-house cinema projection since scooping up the Richmond Roundhouse (where I was once persuaded to see the Depardieu Cyrano de Bergerac with a glass of champagne for the exorbitant price of a fiver, or nine bucks), the Chelsea Cinema, and opening the Curzon Victoria this year. These venues are reverent, knowledgeable, and energetic, but remain very high end, expensive (£17.50 a ticket now — about $27 at today’s rates), and commoditized—like they have caught a new trendy wave of foreign filmgoing amongst wealthy Londoners—and the Curzon brand has all but said goodbye to any repertory ambitions its “assets” once had.

Two cozy, cheapy destinations for new releases were the Ritzy in Brixton, South London, closest to where I was living (and they did flapjacks, carrot cake, and delicious coffee) and what probably remains the most vibrant venue in London today, the Prince Charles, off Leicester Square. The Prince Charles adopted a radical approach to staving off almost certain liquidation in 1991 by hitting on the instant theater-filling idea of showing mainstream hits you might have missed the year before such as — in my day — Robocop or Field of Dreams, before becoming a venue for interactive events such as sing-along The Wizard of Oz and fancy dress Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings. It has since evolved into something of a role model for independent picture houses: cheap, tatty, simple, confident, unpretentious, packed with listings and big on retrospectives. It harbors a continuing fixation on cult cinema and interactive programmes (Tommy Wiseau recently attended a packed “The Room quote-along”), but has also done full Wes Anderson and Coen Brothers retrospectives. A recent Ghibli Studios triple bill was a more than good enough reason for an Allen family trip into town.

By contrast, purely through childish jealousy, I used to loathe the National Film Theatre — now the BFI — because to me it just represented money (which I didn’t have). Films were a pauper’s pursuit and to my mind, people with money and not much else joined and attended the NFT and watched films they had no business watching, after talking relentless, nauseating crap about them in the queues. I went once to see Frenzy with an introduction by Barry Foster, fantasized in line about the scene with Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, and didn’t return for ten years. When I did, my wife and I were “shushed” for laughing too loud at His Girl Friday, so I didn’t go back for another five. The ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) felt more like the real deal back then, but was unfortunately even more elitist, expensive, and inaccessible. Both institutions are alive and kicking today, unquestionably doing great things for film in the UK, but they still retain that aura which would have kept impoverished beginners like me well away. I go to the BFI more now and feel closer to it, but I remain confused as to what it really represents. I’ll still never forgive them for starting Barry Lyndon before they’d let in half the patrons, who’d been patiently queueing outside. A recent screening of L’argent in NFT2 was introduced by a very prominent British critic who didn’t know the film, didn’t appear to care for it very much and — most inexcusably — offered no valuable insight whatsoever. Who did he think his audience was—and was he right to underestimate them? There are only so many experiences of this kind one can have before questioning just how many of them were off-days.

If we judge a religion by its places of worship, temples such as Bell Lighthouse in Toronto, Museum of the Moving Image and BAMCinematek in New York, and the Cinémathèque in Paris feel like confident expressions of — and testaments to — an ingrained culture. It will be a long time before London grows a coherent, identifiable film following that it can relate to as a city. The rents are too high and the public appetite for subsidy too low for its theaters to begin to take up the challenge. But as London — we are told — has become the world’s premier tourist destination, its cultural outlook, which for so long placed film in a corner, is gradually adapting to a more global movement of cinephilia. Social media has transformed the discussion: we see the signs of a genuine film community in Britain now, largely active online and being led by the regions, with notable festivals — Edinburgh, Leeds, Bradford, Cambridge, Sheffield docs, Bristol silents — gaining vital word of mouth from year to year and pop-up screenings such as Secret Cinema, Joanna Hogg’s A Nos Amours, the new ArtHouse in Crouch End, and the devoted Badlands Collective (who recently screened The Long Day Closes with a riotous guest appearance by Terence Davies, and are currently keeping Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D alive on British screens). The improving stature of the London Film Festival (which though based at BFI, uses screens all over the City to showcase its venues) testifies not to a renewal — there was not much to renew — but to the gestation of a tangible, organically proud, and democratically accessible film culture. The time will soon come to revive the revival houses.

Comments: Julien Allen is an attorney and film writer. The unprepossessing shack below a railway bridge in Acton was the Acton Screen (which I remember well). A Clockwork Orange was not banned as such, but was withdrawn from British screens by the director and Warner Bros from 1972 to 1999. My grateful thanks to the editors of Reverse Shot for permission to reproduce this article.

Links: Available at Reverse Shot

Kinema

Source: [Filson Young], ‘Kinema’, The Living Age, vol. 272 (1912), pp. 565-567 (originally published in The Saturday Review, 27 January 1912, pp. 108-109)

Text: This is one of the words there is no escaping from. Distorted, misspelled, mispronounced, debased by unholy conjunctions and alliances, it has nevertheless, in the sacred phrase of banality, “come to stay”; and, with the gramophone and the piano-player, to share the doubtful distinction of being one of the wonders of this age. The kinematograph has worked itself into the life of the people in a way that I, for my part, never suspected until I took up an important-looking book the other day and found that it was entirely devoted to the study of the rise, progress, philosophy and anatomy of the kinematograph. Thus the thing even has its literature. And I feel bound in honesty to say that this book is an extremely honest and competent piece of work, in which is modestly and clearly set forth a complete history of this very remarkable business, with abundant photographs and diagrams for the mechanically-minded, and containing certain statistics which I venture to think would stagger most readers. The work appears in Mr. Heinemann’s “Conquests of Science Series”; and the title itself suggests some curious reflections. Are we really conquering science or is science conquering us? That marvellous monster of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which in its infancy we led as one might lead a lion cub by a ribbon, which we played with and made into a parlor toy: what has it become, and what is it becoming? There is something a little grim about this title “Conquests of Science” appearing on a large book devoted to the kinematograph.

Being always behind the times in such matters, it was only the other day that I went for the first time into a Kinema Palace, as I believe those very white and very gold buildings that diversify the squalor of the humbler thoroughfares are called. I had often been allured by their façades, but from some confusion of mind by which I associated them with those dismal halls where the entertainment consists of peering into an endless number of little metal machines, I had never ventured inside. And when at last I did succumb I was not a little surprised. I did not know that London habitually amused itself between the afternoon hours of twelve and six; but here was a crowd of people pouring into what looked like an ordinary theatre. They were not the idle rich nor yet the wealthy poor; they were people of the lower middle classes, who looked as if they ought to have been at work, but were here disbursing sums varying from a shilling to five shillings with great readiness. The prices themselves were a surprise; I had thought of threepence or sixpence as a reasonable price to pay for an hour’s vision of flickering pictures with motes dancing over them, and a headache; but I think my stall cost five shillings. And there, at the high noon of the London day, in the midst of perhaps the busiest human activity in the world, some hundreds of us sat waiting in a darkened, plush-upholstered hall, like mourners at a funeral waiting for the corpse.

Presently a harmonium, violin, and a piano began some whining and twittering attempt at an overture, and the pictures appeared. We all know them; even I, who am no patron of Kinema palaces, am familiar with them in the larger world of the music-hall. There was the Durbar, a dancing succession of troops marching at about fifteen miles an hour, of well-known figures walking up to you, looming nearer and nearer, and then apparently cut off in the prime of life and blotted out as though they had never been; the industrial pictures of money being coined at the Mint — tons of bullion poured out before one’s eyes while someone behind the screen jingled sixpenny worth of halfpence in a tin tray; some wonderful things and some stupid things; and then, finally, the plunge into real, thick, treacley sentiment, the middle-aged man brooding by the fireside (such a fireside!) and looking at the face of his sweetheart in an old album (such an album!), and seeing visions of himself and his sweetheart as children, as young man and maiden, as bride and bridegroom (such a bride and bridegroom!); and, finally, the disturbance of the gentleman’s meditation by the arrival in the room of his wife, who, when she turns her face to the audience, is seen to be identical with the heroine of the old fool’s meditations. This the audience liked; and I saw a stout woman, who might have been a publican’s wife, wiping away an undoubted tear.

They did not give me for my five shillings what I really longed for — one of those breathlessly rapid dramas in which babies are thrown at people in the street, motor-cars fly asunder before your eyes, and long trains of people, headed by a policeman and a nursemaid, and receiving constant accretions in the shape of chimney-sweeps, clergymen, bricklayers, and school children, pursue one another apparently in the full light of day across thoroughfares which are unmistakably recognizable as the Champs Elysées and the Avenue du Trocadéro. It is an unending pleasure to see men running at thirty-five miles an hour and clashing into each other at a corner and exploding in a cloud of smoke. One feels at such moments that life is really a busier and braver thing than the dull crawl of one’s own experience.

But there is another side to the picture. Men have toiled and used splendid brains in order that these things should be; one cannot help asking oneself how far they are worth while. All over the world there are great theatres with stages far larger and more modern than Covent Garden or the Paris Opera, equipped with every kind of scenic effect, on which dramas are dally performed to no other spectator than the little crystal lens in front of an unrolling film; sometimes as many as two thousand people at a time are employed in a drama on one of these great stages. Is this to be the theatre of the future? We have almost abolished thinking from our theatres; are we also to abolish hearing, and seeing in any except one dimension? There is another, perhaps the greatest, evil of the kinematograph craze, the evil which it shares with the pianola-player and the gramophone. It is that these things really narrow the life and experience of men. They bring life to one’s door; and it will soon be possible for people to have all the adventurous experience they want within a radius of half a mile of their own house. No journeys need be taken; you pay sixpence and sit in a chair that is mechanically rocked like a railway carriage, and look out upon the moving scenery of the Andes, the Alps, or the Rockies. You need not go through the toil and discipline of learning the technique of music; turn a handle, and all that Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin groaned in travail with, wept tears of blood for, or laughed and sang out to the world, is at your command. You need not go and hear a great oration; the very voice will issue for you from your brass-throated gramophone on the morrow. All of which is bad, and means loss of life in the fullest and most serious sense. It is not the conquest of science, but the abuse of science.

But there is no question about there being a real use for the kinematograph. To such perfection has it been brought that it can record the movement of an insect or a bird’s wing, or the flight and penetration of a projectile. Films have been made so delicate that they will take a picture in an exposure of 1-42,000th of a second; the mechanism has been so perfected that streams of consecutive pictures can be taken at the rate of 5000 per second, the measurement and control of this being entrusted to a tuning-fork — so far beyond our mere mechanical abilities do such figures take us.

And as an historical record also the kinematograph has its legitimate use. Sometimes — very rarely — looking upon that illuminated square, one has for the moment a sense of real illusion, of looking through a glass and seeing the sea breaking on some tropical shore, or the figures of men moving and smiling in a distant land. Think if we could once see in the same way King John crossing to the little Thames island to give Englishmen their freedom, or Anne Boleyn driving through the streets of Westminster to her wedding, or Cromwell speaking in the House of Commons, or King Charles I, making his farewell on the scaffold! It would not be so much on the central figures that we should pore as upon the crowds and the people in the street, seeing actually before our eyes what men and women looked like, how they moved about, what clothes they wore, what manners they had in those dim, far-off days. Five hundred years hence the English people will in this way be able to see scenes of our life in England; we shall not be so isolated from them; they will know us really as we are, and along with the figures and faces of the great will be preserved and made familiar to our descendants of the twenty-fifth century some otherwise utterly unimportant people, who pushed to the front of crowds and took the trouble to see public shows. And perhaps the most familiar figures of our day to the people of coming days will be the figures of policemen. Thus you see even the kinematograph will not really tell the truth; for there is no such thing as mechanical truth or mechanical record of truth. And that is the crowning fault of mechanism when it takes the place of human effort and labor.

Comments: Filson Young (1876–1938) was a British journalist and essayist. The Living Age was an American magazine which reproduced selections from English and American magazines and newspapers. The article was originally published in British magazine The Saturday Review. The book on film the writer refers to is Frederick A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (London: Heinemann, 1912). Typical cinema prices of the time were between threepence and sixpence, and the suggestion of a five shilling seat sounds like an exaggeration. The ‘Durbar’ refers to newsfilms of the Delhi Durbar celebrations of 1911. Many trick and chase films of the period were indeed filmed in Paris, by the Pathé and Gaumont firms.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Increasing Congregation

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance VI: The Increasing Congregation’, Close Up vol. I no. 6, December 1927, pp. 61-65

Text: It is the London season. Not a day must be lost nor any conspicuous event. And the cinema, having been first a nine months wonder and then, almost to date, a perennial perplexity, matter for public repudiation mitigated by private and, with fair good fortune, securely invisible patronage, is now part of our lives, ranks, as a topic, alongside the theatre and there are Films that must be seen. We go. No longer in secret and in taxis and alone, but openly in parties in the car. We emerge, glitter for a moment in the brilliant light of the new flamboyant foyer, and disappear for the evening into the queer faintly indecent gloom. Such illumination as there will be, moments of the familiar sense of the visible audience, of purposefully being somewhere, is but hail and farewell leaving our party again isolated amidst unknown invisible humanity. Anyone may be there. Anyone is there and everyone, and not segregated in a tier-quenched background nor packed away up under the roof. During the brief interval we behold not massed splendours bordered by a row of newspaper men, but everyone, filling the larger space, oddly ahead of us.

“What about a Movie? That one at the Excelsior sounds quite good.” Suggestions made off-hand. A Theatre is a rarity, to be selected with care, anticipated, experienced, discussed at great length, long remembered. But a film more or less is neither here nor there. May be good may be surprisingly good in the way of this strange new goodness provided for hours of relaxation and that nobody seems quite sure what to think of. It will at least be an evening’s entertainment, a welcome change from talk, reading, bridge, wireless, gramophone. And the trip down town revives the unfailing bright sense of going out, lifts off the burden and heat of the day and if the rest of the evening is a failure it is not an elaborately arranged and expensive failure.

There’s pictures going on all over London always making something to do whenever you want to go out specially those big new ones with orchestras. Splendid. It’s the next best thing to a dance and sure to be good you can get a nice meal at a restaurant and decide while you’re there and if the one you choose is full up there’s another round the corner nothing to fix up and worry about. And it’s all so nice nothing poky and those fine great entrance halls everything smart and just right and waiting there for friends you feel in society like anybody else if your hat’s all right and your things and my word the ready-mades are so cheap nowadays you need never go shabby and the commissionnaires and all those smart people about makes you feel smart. It’s as good an evening as you can have and time for a nice bit of supper afterwards.

It is Monday. Thursday. The pence for the pictures are in the jar beside the saucer of coppers for the slot metre. But folded behind the jar are unpaid bills. In the jar are threepence and six halfpence … “Me and ‘Erb tonight, then we’ll have to manage for Dad and Alf Thurdsay and then no more for a bit. … Whatever did we used to do when there was no pictures? Best we could I s’pose, and must again.”

“Never swore I wouldn’t go again this week. Never said swelp me. Might be doin’ worse. Its me own money anyway.”

“Goin’ on now. This minute. Pickshers goin’ on now. Thou shalt not ste… Goin’ on and me ‘ere. It won’t be, if I pay it back. …”

And so here we all are. All over London, all over England, all over the world. Together in this strange hospice risen overnight, rough and provisional but guerdon none the less of a world in the making. Never before was such all-embracing hospitality save in an ever-open church where kneels madame hastened in to make her duties between a visit to her dressmaker and an assignation, where the dustman’s wife bustles in with infants and market-basket.

Universal hospitality. See that starveling, lean with loathing, feeding his unknown desperate longings upon selected books, giving his approval to tortoiseshell cats. He creeps in here. Braving the herd he creeps in. His scorn for the film is not more inspiring than the fact of his presence.

And that pleasant intellectual, grown a little weary of the things of the mind, his stock-in-trade. He comes not for ideas, but to cease in his mild circling, to use the cinema as a stupifier, forty winks for his cherished intelligence. He will go away refreshed to write his next article.

Happy youth, happy childhood, weary women of all classes for whom at home there is no resting-place. Sensitives creep in here to sit clothed in merciful darkness. See those elders in whose ears sound always the approaching footsteps of death. Here, now and again, they are free from the sense of moments ticked off. See the beatitude of the stone-deaf. And that charming girl lost, despairing in the midst of her first quarrel who would no more go to an entertainment alone than she would disrobe herself in the street. But this refuge near her lodgings opens its twilit spaces and makes itself her weepery.

Refuge, trysting-place, village pump, stimulant, shelter from rain and cold at less than the price of an evening’s light and fire, drunkenness at less than the price of a drink. Instruction. Peeps behind scenes. Sermons. Homethrusts for hims and for hers, impartially.

School, salon, brothel, bethel, newspaper, art science, religion, philosophy, commerce, sport, adventure; flashes of beauty of all sorts. The only anything and everything. And here we all are, as never before. What will it do with us?

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Adventures with D.W. Griffith

Source: Extracts from Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), pp. 86-95

Text: It was a packed house, with swarms of people standing around outside, hoping for cancellations so they could get in anywhere at all, even in the top gallery. I never saw or felt such eager anticipation in any crowd as there was at that opening night. We three, my father, my mother, and I, had been given choice seats saved for us by Frank Woods. My parents, old-stagers at the business of opening nights, were all keyed up to a state of high tension, while I – well, I was feeling a little sick because I knew what the picture really was, just another Biograph, our four times as long. I simply couldn’t help feeling that it had been a tragic mistake to build up such a fever pitch of eager anticipation, only to let them down by showing them what was bound to be just another movie. Only longer, much longer, three hours longer. What audience, however friendly, could possibly sit through that much of nothing but one long, one very long movie of the kind they had seen a hundred times before?

My first inkling that this was not to be just another movie came when I heard, over the babble of the crowd, the familiar sound of a great orchestra tuning up. First the oboe sounding A, then the others joining to produce an ever-changing medley of unrelated sounds, with each instrument testing its own strength and capability through this warming-up preliminary. Then the orchestra came creeping in through that little doorway under the proscenium apron and I tried to count them. Impossible. Too many. But there were at least seventy, for that’s where I lost count, so most if not all of the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra had been hired to “play” the picture.

[…]

The house lights dimmed. The audience became tensely silent. I felt once again, as always before, that strange all-over chill that comes with the magic moment of hushed anticipation when the curtain is about to rise.

The title came on, apparently by mistake, because the curtain had not yet risen and all I could see was the faint flicker of the lettering against the dark fabric of the main curtain. But it was not a mistake at all, because the big curtain rose slowly to disclose the title, full and clear upon the picture screen, while at the same time [Joseph Carl] Briel’s baton rose, held for an instant, and then swept down, releasing the full impact of the orchestra in a mighty fanfare that was all but out-roared by the massive blast of the organ in an overwhelming burst of earth-shaking sound that shocked the audience first into a stunned silence and then roused them to a pitch of enthusiasm such as I had never seen or heard before.

Then, of course, came those damned explanatory titles that I had shot time and time again as Griffith and Woods kept changing and rechanging them, all with the object of having them make as much sense as possible in the fewest possible words. Somehow, the audience didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps they were hardened to it. They should have been, by now, because whenever anybody made any kind of historical picture, it always had to be preceded by a lot of titles telling all about it, not to mention a long and flowery dedication thanking everyone from the Holy Trinity to the night watchman for their invaluable cooperation, without which this picture would not have been possible.

The orchestra sort of murmured to itself during the titles, as though to reassure the audience that they couldn’t last forever. And then … the picture, gliding along through its opening sequences on a flow of music that seemed to speak for the screen and to interpret every mood. The audience was held entranced, but I was not. I was worried in the same way that young fathers, waiting to learn whether it’s a boy or a girl, are worried. I was worried, badly worried, about the battle scenes, and I wished they’d get through fiddle-faddling with that dance and all that mushy stuff and get down to cases. For it was a simple, open-and-shut matter of make or break as far as I could see; and I could not see how that mixed-up jumble of unrelated bits and pieces of action could ever be made into anything but a mixed-up jumble of bits and pieces.

Well, I was wrong. What unfolded on that screen was magic itself. I knew there were cuts from this to that, but try as I would, I could not see them. A shot of the extreme far end of the Confederate line flowed into another but nearer shot of the same line, to be followed by another and another, until I could have sworn that the camera had been carried back by some sort of impossible carrier that made it seem to be all one unbroken scene. Perhaps the smoke helped blind out the jumps, I don’t know. All I knew was that between the ebb and flow of a broad canvas of a great battle, now far and now near, and the roaring of that gorgeous orchestra banging and blaring battle songs to stir the coldest blood, I was hot and cold and feeling waves of tingling electric shocks racing all over me.

[…]

Somewhere during my self-castigation a title came on reading INTERMISSION. So soon? I asked my father the time. He pulled out his watch, snapped open the case, and said it was nine thirty. Preposterous. Somehow during the past fifteen minutes, or not more than twenty, an hour and a half had sneaked away.

We went out with the rest of the crowd to stretch our legs and, in true backstage fashion, to eavesdrop on the comments of the others. There was enthusiasm, yes; lots of it. It had been exactly as grandpa had described it was the consensus, only more real. There were also a few professionals who were wisely sure that Griffith was riding for all fall. “You can;t shoot all your marbles in the first half and have anything left for your finish” was the loudly expressed opinion of a very portly, richly dressed gentleman. “That battle was a lulu, best I’ve seen, and that assassination bit was a knockout, I ain’t kidding you. But what’s he going to do for a topper, that’s what I want to know. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. This thing is going to fizzle out like a wet firecracker, that’s what it’s going to do. Don’t tell me, I know! I’ve seen it happen too many times. They shoot the works right off the bat and they got nothing left for their finish. You wait and see. You just wait and see.”

[…]

And yet it wasn’t the finish that worried me so much as the long, dull, do-nothing stuff that I knew was slated for the bulk of the second half. Stuff like the hospital scenes, where Lillian Gish comes to visit Henry Walthall, she in demurest of dove grey, he in bed with a bandage neatly and evenly wrapped around his head. Now what in the world can anyone possibly do to make a hospital visit seem other than routine? He’ll be grateful, and she’ll be sweetly sympathetic, but what else? How can you or Griffith or the Man in the Moon possibly get anything out of such a scene? Answer: you can’t. But he did, by reaching outside the cur-and-dried formula and coming up with something so unexpected, and yet so utterly natural, that it lifted the entire thing right out of the rut and made it ring absolutely true.

Since this was an army hospital there had to be a sentry on guard. So Griffith looked around, saw a sloppy, futile sort of character loitering about, and ran him in to play the sentry, a fellow named Freeman, not an actor, just another extra. Well, Lillian passed before him and he looked after her and sighed. In the theater and on the screen, that sigh became a monumental, standout scene, because it was so deep, so heartfelt, and so loaded with longing for the unattainable that it simply delighted the audience. But not without help. Breil may not have been the greatest composer the world has ever known but he did know how to make an orchestra talk, and that sigh, uttered by the cellos and the muted trombones softly sliding down in a discordant glissando, drove the audience into gales of laughter.

[…]

I endured the “drama” – all that stuff with Ralph Lewis being shown up as a fake when he wouldn’t let his daughter marry George Siegmann because he was a mulatto – all because I was itching to get to the part where Walter Long chased Mae Marsh all over Big Bear Valley, running low and dripping with peroxide. What came on the screen wasn’t Walter Long at all. It was some sort of inhuman monster, an ungainly, misshapen creature out of a nightmare, not running as a human being would run but shambling like a gorilla. And Mae Marsh was not fluttering, either. She was a poor little lost girl frightened out of her wits, not knowing which way to turn, but searching, searching for safety, and too bewildered to know what she was doing. So she ran to the peak of that rock, and when the monster came lumbering straight at her, she … well, all I can say is that it was right, absolutely, perfectly, incontestably right.

And did the audience hate Griffith for letting them down? Not a bit of it. When the clansmen began to rise,the cheers began to rise from all over that packed house. This was not a ride to save Little Sister but to avenge her death, and every soul in that audience was in the saddle with the clansmen and pounding hell-for-leather on an errand of stern justice, lighted on their way by the holy flames of a burning cross.

[…]

So everyone was rescued and everyone was happy and everyone was noble in victory and the audience didn’t just sit there and applaud, but they stood up and cheered and yelled and stamped feet until Griffith finally made an appearance.

If you could call it an appearance. Now I, personally, in such a situation would have bounded out to the center of the stage with both hands aloft in a gesture of triumph, and I would probably have shaken my hands over my head, as Tom Wilson had told me was the proper thing for any world’s champion to do at the end of a hard-fought but victorious fight.

Griffith did nothing of the sort. He stepped out a few feet from stage left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of that great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stand there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like great waves breaking over a rock.

Then he left. The show was over. There was an exit march from the orchestra, but nobody could hear it. People were far too busy telling one another how wonderful, how great, how tremendous it had all been.

Comments: Karl Brown (1896-1990) was an American cinematographer and director. He served as assistant to cinematographer Billy Bitzer on D.W. Griffith’s feature film The Birth of a Nation. His memoir Adventures with D.W. Griffith is one of the best first-hand accounts of silent era film. The event recalled here is the premiere at Clune’s Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 8 February 1915, when the film was still known as The Clansman. The composer Joseph Carol Breil did not conduct at the premiere – it was Carli Elinor, conducting his own score. Brown’s memory sometimes places film sequences in the wrong order, though Griffith did re-edit the film after initial screenings and in response to requests by censorship boards. Frank Woods was co-scriptwriter on the with with Griffith. Walter Long was a white actor playing a black character, Gus.

Maskelyne and Cooke's

Source: ‘Maskelyne and Cooke’s’, The Era, 18 April 1896, p. 16

Text: The Easter novelty at the “home of mystery” in Piccadilly is an exhibition of Mr R.W. Paul’s latest development of the results of continuous and instantaneous photography, whereby animated pictures from scenes of everyday life are thrown upon a screen. Mr Nevil Maskelyne acts as lecturer, and in a brief introduction recounts the history of the ancient zoetrope, or wheel of life. Similar in principle to the zoetrope was the gyroscope, exhibited sixty years since in a gallery of the Polytechnic. This was a wheel of black silhouette figures revolving before a mirror, giving the appearance of vitality. Half a century afterwards Mr Edison produced his kinetoscope – a band of progressive photographs passing before the eye of the spectator applied to an optical peephole, and creating the effects of life and motion. Mr R.W. Paul’s apparatus shows us a series of pictures of photography come to life – photography taken “in the action.” The first moving scene announced by Mr Nevil Maskelyne is a band practice. The music of the march that one may imagine is being played is given on the pianoforte by Mr F. Cramer. A number of Highland dancers are scarcely quick enough in their movements; but the remark does not apply to the graceful evolutions of a serpentine dancer or to the good-natured boxing of a couple of trained cats. The animated pictures are likely to be very popular. The interest of Mr R.W. Paul’s invention is inexhaustible, for the attraction may be revived again and again by new pictures …

Comments: Robert Paul’s Theatrograph projector first became part of the programme at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London on 19 March 1896, having made its public debut on 20 February 1896 at Finsbury Technical College. The Egyptian Hall was known for its magic shows presented by the company of Maskelyne & Cooke, where magicians David Devant and John Nevil Maskelyne were important early adopters of moving images as a public entertainment. The films named here are the Edison titles Band Drill (1894), Highland Dance (1894), a serpentine dance (there were several Edison films of serpentine dancers) and Boxing Cats (1894). The review goes on to mention the various magic arts that formed the greater part of the programme at the Egyptian Hall.

Ancient Mysteries Described

Source: William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described, Especially the English Miracle Plays, Founded on Apocryphal New Testament Story, Extant Among the Unpublished Manuscripts in the British Museum etc. (London: William Hone, 1823), pp. 230-231

Text: The English puppet-show was formerly called a motion. Shakspeare [sic] mentions the performance of Mysteries by puppets; his Autolycus frequented wakes, fairs, and bear-baitings, and ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son’ On a Twelfth night, in 1818, a man, making the usual Christmas cry, of ‘Gallantee show,’ was called in to exhibit his performances for the amusement of my young folks and their companions. Most unexpectedly, he ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son‘ by dancing his transparencies between the magnifying glass and candle of a magic lanthorn, the coloured figures greatly enlarged, were reflected on a sheet spread against the wall of a darkened room. The prodigal son was represented carousing with his companions at the Swan Inn, at Stratford; while the landlady in the bar, on every fresh call, was seen to score double. There was also Noah’s Ark, with ‘Pull Devil, Pull Baker,’ or the just judgment upon a baker who sold bread short of weight, and was carried to hell in his own basket. The reader will bear in mind, that this was not a motion in the dramatic sense of the word, but a puppet-like exhibition of a Mystery, with discrepancies of the same character as those which peculiarized the Mysteries of five centuries ago. The Gallantee-showman narrated with astonishing gravity the incidents of every fresh scene, while his companion in the room played country-dances and other tunes on the street organ, during the whole of the performance. The manager informed me that his show had been the same during many years, and, in truth, it was unvariable; for his entire property consisted of but this one set of glasses, and his magic lanthorn. I failed in an endeavour to make him comprehend that its propriety could be doubted of: it was the first time that he had heard of the possibility of objection to an entertainment which his audiences witnessed every night with uncommon and unbounded applause. Expressing a hope that I would command his company at a future time, he put his card into my hand, inscribed, ‘The Royal Gallantee Show, provided by Jos. Leverge, 7, Ely Court, Holborn Hill:’ the very spot whereon the last theatrical representation of a Mystery, the play of Christ’s Passion, is recorded to have been witnessed in England.

Comments: William Hone (1780-1842) was a British satirist, bookseller and campaigner against censorship. A Galantee show was one provided by a travelling entertainer of the first half of the nineteenth century, whose entertainments could include magic lanterns, puppets, shadows shows etc. Autolycus is a character in William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. Hone’s book Ancient Mysteries Described traces the history of the English miracle and mystery plays, and here finds traces of their survival in the magic lantern show performed for a child audience.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Lege Bioskoop

Source: Paul van Ostaijen, ‘Lege Bioskoop’, in Bezette Stad (Antwerp: Sienjaal, 1921)

Text:
legebioskoop1

Comments: Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) was a Belgian poet. His idiosyncratically-designed Bezette Stad (Occupied City) is a collection of poems influenced by Dadism and Expressionism which deals with his life in Antwerp during the First World War. It features many references to the cinema and film stars (particularly Asta Nielsen). The poem ‘Lege Bioskoop’ (Empty Cinema) has a pianist playing to films in an empty cinema, building the music up to a gallop. I have not been able to find an English translation, and cannot match the titles Eenzame Bank, De Duivelse Vrouw or Arme Meisje van Belleville to any known films. My thanks to Karel Dibbets for drawing my attention to van Ostaijen’s work.

Links: Copy of Bezette Stad at Project Gutenberg
Copy of Bezette Stad at the International Dada Archive at the University of Iowa Libraries

Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress

Source: Vachel Lindsay, ‘Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress (After seeing the reel called “Oil and Water”)’ in The Congo, and other poems (New York: Macmillan, 1918 – orig. pub. 1914), pp. 108-110

Text:
Beauty has a throne-room
In our humorous town,
Spoiling its hob-goblins,
Laughing shadows down.
Rank musicians torture
Ragtime ballads vile,
But we walk serenely
Down the odorous aisle.
We forgive the squalor
And the boom and squeal
For the Great Queen flashes
From the moving reel.

Just a prim blonde stranger
In her early day,
Hiding brilliant weapons,
Too averse to play,
Then she burst upon us
Dancing through the night.
Oh, her maiden radiance,
Veils and roses white.
With new powers, yet cautious,
Not too smart or skilled,
That first flash of dancing
Wrought the thing she willed:-
Mobs of us made noble
By her strong desire,
By her white, uplifting,
Royal romance-fire.

Though the tin piano
Snarls its tango rude,
Though the chairs are shaky
And the dramas crude,
Solemn are her motions,
Stately are her wiles,
Filling oafs with wisdom,
Saving souls with smiles;
‘Mid the restless actors
She is rich and slow.
She will stand like marble,
She will pause and glow,
Though the film is twitching,
Keep a peaceful reign,
Ruler of her passion,
Ruler of our pain!

Comments: Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) was an American poet with a particular interest in the cinema. He wrote several poems on film stars, and a somewhat high-flown work of early film theory, The Art of the Motion Picture (1915). Blanche Sweet was an American film actress, best known for her performances in the films of D.W. Griffith, including Oil and Water (USA 1913).

Links: Copy of The Congo, and other poems at Internet Archive

If I Don't Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.